How would you describe The English?
It’s a story of passion, loyalty, survival in the face of adversity, revenge, fear, corruption, and hope. It’s set against the backdrop of a time of radical change in the world, and the awe and power of nature.
What interested you the most on reading the scripts?
It’s multifaceted – I was looking for a character that feels different to what I’ve played before, a director that you admire, and you think can help push you in a direction you’ve not been in before, which was the case in this instance. Then, it’s about the story and the writing. Is the arc of the story interesting, and is the writing good? It’s rare that you get to tick all of them.
I was fascinated by Thomas and drawn to his complexities. The idea of piecing that into this incredible story, coupled with the fact it’s a Western meant the whole mixing pot was an attraction.
What is it about Hugo’s writing and directing style that makes his productions stand out from the rest?
I’ve been lucky in my career that I’ve worked with a lot of writer/directors, auteurs, almost. As an actor, that experience is a gift because you can challenge the obvious linear way of telling the story by going against the grain. You’re initially more constricted because you’re in this very clear focus, but you can throw challenges at that, and it’s always celebrated. On a personal level, my experience of working with Hugo was exhilarating.
In terms of storytelling, what do you think is unique about The English?
The Western is a genre that we all know and recognise, but there’s a lot of that period of history that’s not had the light shone on it. Hugo’s passion for detail and historical accuracy and metronomic focus and compassion in trying to tell that story broadly and fairly is exciting. We can hopefully bring a whole other historical, cultural and sociological commentary with the excitement of the genre of a Western.
What are the challenges of making a Western?
The heat, horses, moustaches, clothes – which are breathtakingly amazing but heavy, as they would be and are therefore accurate, but in the heat that can be tricky.
I’d never really ridden a horse before, but I’ve loved it. I’ve been lucky enough to do things in the show like get the horse up to what feels like one hundred miles per hour, but it’s probably about three! The other thing with the horses is that you’re not dealing with a machine where you can tell it very specifically what to do, you’re dealing with an animal with its own ideas, thoughts and feelings. You’ll be halfway through a scene and you’ve just found something that’s magical and your horse will decide it’s the perfect time to go to the toilet.
Was there anything that surprised you about the period of history portrayed in the script?
The series is called The English and it’s called that for a reason. That was the name that was coined for the influx of people coming from, predominantly Europe, but all over really, to partake in this land- grab and fortune trail. Looking through a moment in America’s history where everything is up in the air, to learn about the impact that influx had was breath-taking. I knew certain things about it but not in the way that I feel I do now.
Can you tell us about your character and what drives him?
I’m quite fascinated by Thomas in many ways. There’s an emotional bravery but also a naivety – there’s an eccentricity to him but there’s also the constraints of the aristocracy and things he’s grown up with. What made him get up and go and come to a landscape where it’s barren and you’re living with the land? I think he misjudged it. He probably had a vision of what it was and that leads me towards what I think is the heart of him – he’s an idealist and a romantic. I was determined to get this hope in there, this pulsing beat of optimism.
Could you describe your experience working with other members of the cast?
Coming to film with Emily Blunt, Chaske Spencer, Stephen Rea, Ciarán Hinds, Rafe Spall, Toby Jones… that’s not intimidating at all! On one level it was like, ‘Jesus, I’ve got to really be on my game here’. I found it exciting because when you get a cast of people together who are not only that experienced, but clever, and to be coming on a set with those people was a thrill – you want to be working with people who are going to challenge you and push you.
How do you unlock your character?
There are many ways of unlocking a character, but costume is massive. The moment of putting a costume on changes your rhythm. It’s important for me to find a collaboration and follow Phoebe de Gaye’s quite breath-taking vision for it was amazing. The costume is important for Thomas because the buckskins he wears when we meet him in 1875 are so indicative of who he is at that point and his slight naivety, he’s certainly not worldly wise. He just looks like a bit of a fool, but we needed to mark that in a way that didn’t place him as a fool eternally for an audience, we need to almost be charmed by it than stand back and laugh at it, and that’s a difficult thing to get right.
Tell us about the costume…
I spoke to Phoebe de Gaye and she agreed that we feel Thomas would still be pining for England and therefore we wanted to get the depth of colours that would lean towards the wealth and the aristocracy he comes from. It was mind blowing what she’d done, so much had been made and the buckskin coat was off the chart. It helped me to not have to play that part of him, that’s very intrinsic in his formative years, I wanted that to be subtly shown to the audience and Phoebe took that idea and ran with it – the costumes were amazing, they did 99% of my job for me.
What was it like shooting in Spain?
When I found out the shoot was in Spain that was exciting. You feel like you’re on Mars sometimes because it’s so wild, the nature. The locations have been fantastic, it does the job for you because you can’t see any civilisation, you do feel like you’ve been transported to what these guys would have been feeling when they arrived in America. I couldn’t have imagined a better place to film it.
In what way will the series resonate with people around the world?
The fact that it’s a Western will make it attractive to people – we haven’t really had too many recently, although it’s a genre that’s recognisable, it also feels quite new and almost post-modern in a way that will be exciting to people.
At the heart of it, the story between Cornelia and Eli is something that is equally universal in its attraction to people, we can all recognise elements in that – there’s something quite Shakespearian about it at times, that as a centre piece is something everyone can connect with.
There’s been a necessary shift recently towards people realising the more you allow stories from all perspectives and interpretations, the more cultivated, blossoming and multifunctional we become as a society on mass. To take the chance to go back through history and look at it broadly, at everything from all angles, but try and include everything that happened and show that tapestry in its fullest. It’s going to be a thrill for me to watch it just like everybody else.